The Seven Toughest Men in Oregon History – Part 2
Lewis and Clark Expedition
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson assigned his personal Secretary, Meriwether Lewis to put together a group of soldiers to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. 38 Soldiers, and later three civilians one of them a woman and her fifty-five day old child, set out for arguably the most important journey in United States history. Incredibly only one member of the party died, and that was from appendicitis, an incurable disease at that time.
Right off the bat the party was in trouble, as Spanish interests may have been slightly manipulated into putting together forces large enough to ambush and destroy the Lewis and Clark expedition. Luckily the Expedition was traveling much further north then reported so the Spanish were never able to catch up with them, or the history of the United States would be much different. It’s doubtful that Lewis even knew they were being pursued until after the expeditions return.
The trip itself was no party. Men had to push their keel boat and canoes upriver, frequently wading through rough rivers, mud, and sand to do so, or to free the boats from underwater obstacles. They had some translation trouble with the Blackfeet Indians that resulted in two of the Indians dead. By the time they reached the Rocky Mountains the party had resorted to eating dogs that they had traded for and some of their own horses. Through massive amounts of diplomacy, trinkets and trade goods, demonstrations with Lewis’ Air Gun, Goodwill generated by having Sacajawea and her son, Jean Baptiste along, the exoticness of Lewis’ slave York, and fiddling by two of the party members, the expedition was able to bluff it’s way through most potential troubles. Lewis himself was once chased by a bear, as were two of his party members. Every member of the party also dealt with various intestinal issues as their diets dramatically changed within a few days and would consist of only one item for days at a time.
Once over the Rockies they then canoe down the uncharted Columbia River and spend the winter on the Oregon Coast. During this time they constantly fend off thieving Indians from the Clatsop tribe (literally, the Indians would walk into the fort and simply take whatever they wanted,) they subsisted mostly on Elk meat and some fish, they built a fort in the middle of the wilderness and got ready to come back through all the same dangers they faced the first time.
The party maintained fairly good military discipline only having one issue at the start of the trip. After the trip most members of the expedition either became fur trappers, or stayed in the army. Many who did fought in the War of 1812.
Only one expedition member is ever known to come back to Oregon though. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau at the age of 55 most likely contracted pneumonia after falling in the Owyhee River in winter. He is buried near the ghost town of Inskip Station in Mahleur County, Oregon.